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2.8 Target directory

The cp, install, ln, and mv commands normally treat the last operand specially when it is a directory or a symbolic link to a directory. For example, ‘cp source dest’ is equivalent to ‘cp source dest/source’ if dest is a directory. Sometimes this behavior is not exactly what is wanted, so these commands support the following options to allow more fine-grained control:


Do not treat the last operand specially when it is a directory or a symbolic link to a directory. This can help avoid race conditions in programs that operate in a shared area. For example, when the command ‘mv /tmp/source /tmp/dest’ succeeds, there is no guarantee that /tmp/source was renamed to /tmp/dest: it could have been renamed to /tmp/dest/source instead, if some other process created /tmp/dest as a directory. However, if mv -T /tmp/source /tmp/dest succeeds, there is no question that /tmp/source was renamed to /tmp/dest.

In the opposite situation, where you want the last operand to be treated as a directory and want a diagnostic otherwise, you can use the --target-directory (-t) option.

-t directory

Use directory as the directory component of each destination file name.

The interface for most programs is that after processing options and a finite (possibly zero) number of fixed-position arguments, the remaining argument list is either expected to be empty, or is a list of items (usually files) that will all be handled identically. The xargs program is designed to work well with this convention.

The commands in the mv-family are unusual in that they take a variable number of arguments with a special case at the end (namely, the target directory). This makes it nontrivial to perform some operations, e.g., “move all files from here to ../d/”, because mv * ../d/ might exhaust the argument space, and ls | xargs ... doesn’t have a clean way to specify an extra final argument for each invocation of the subject command. (It can be done by going through a shell command, but that requires more human labor and brain power than it should.)

The --target-directory (-t) option allows the cp, install, ln, and mv programs to be used conveniently with xargs. For example, you can move the files from the current directory to a sibling directory, d like this:

ls | xargs mv -t ../d --

However, this doesn’t move files whose names begin with ‘.’. If you use the GNU find program, you can move those files too, with this command:

find . -mindepth 1 -maxdepth 1 \
  | xargs mv -t ../d

But both of the above approaches fail if there are no files in the current directory, or if any file has a name containing a blank or some other special characters. The following example removes those limitations and requires both GNU find and GNU xargs:

find . -mindepth 1 -maxdepth 1 -print0 \
  | xargs --null --no-run-if-empty \
      mv -t ../d

The --target-directory (-t) and --no-target-directory (-T) options cannot be combined.

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